MAY 19, 2015
By Nicola Berkovic
Thousands of women and children experiencing domestic violence in NSW, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania are set to miss out on vital assistance for family law services as those states face a declining share of commonwealth legal aid funding.
The Australian has obtained a draft national partnership agreement on the $1.3 billion legal assistance services that reveals some states will be hit by cuts because of complex new commonwealth funding formulas, while others will be better off or in a similar position.
The revelation comes as National Association of Community Legal Centres chairman Michael Smith declared the commonwealth had missed an opportunity to force the states to provide more money to the sector as it hammers out a new funding deal.
Legal Aid NSW chief executive Bill Grant said his agency would lose $16.7 million over five years.
Mr Grant said the cut equated to 6680 fewer grants of aid for court representation or 15,180 fewer family dispute resolution conferences. He said about 55 per cent of the agency’s family law clients reported fears for their own or their children’s safety, while 20 per cent had apprehended domestic violence orders in place.
Federal Attorney-General George Brandis will face pressure to find more money for the sector at a meeting with state attorneys-general on Friday in Canberra.
The new agreement will for the first time cover community legal centres as well as legal aid, as the commonwealth shifts responsibility for CLCs to the states. South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT currently put nothing or very little into CLCs and it appears they will not be forced to invest new money under the agreement.
Commonwealth funding for CLCs will be cut from about $42m to $30m a year from 2017-18 under the new agreement.
NACLC’s Mr Smith said there was a “crisis in legal help across Australia” and a true partnership was needed between the commonwealth, states and territories.
“There’s an opportunity here to see real reform but we’ve only got another two-year band-aid on the problem,” he said.
National Legal Aid chairwoman Gabrielle Canny said legal aid commissions had tailored programs to help victims of domestic violence resolve disputes outside the courts and it was vital more money was set aside by the commonwealth and states to ensure those continued. “National Legal Aid will be looking to state and federal governments … to specifically allocate new money for the family dispute resolution programs that are tailored to assist domestic violence victims,” she said.
NSW Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton said the Baird government was “deeply concerned” that NSW faced cuts to legal aid funding and Aboriginal legal services. SA Attorney-General John Rau said his state was also concerned it would receive less funding.
A spokesman for Senator Brandis said the government was committed to protecting the most vulnerable members of the community. He said the new deal had an “evidence-based funding allocation model” to ensure scarce resources went to those most in need. The new agreement will for the first time apply a consistent approach to CLC funding, but also places onerous new reporting requirements on the sector which will drive up administrative costs.